Ps. 104:1, 10-15
1 Tim. 4:1-10
Fr. Nathan Baxter
Meeting God in our Worship
I remember my first visit to an Episcopal church forty years ago. I was in my first year in law school and had no religious or spiritual interest at the time. My landlady’s mischievous eldest son came home in early December and asked me if I wanted to go to church with him “and meet some chicks“ (honestly!). Well, Jonathan was a cool guy, and I had nothing to do, so off I went. I didn’t meet any chicks and didn’t have a sudden conversion experience, but that day I experienced a worship style that ministers deeply to my soul to this day.
Although I probably didn’t realize it then, it was the first Sunday of Advent. I remember vividly two things from that service. The first was simply the beauty of the church.– a classic stone building with small stained glass windows that was filled with the presence of mystery and the holy. The second was hearing “O come O Come Emmanuel” for the first time in my life. I know now that I experienced the presence of God there that day, but I just didn’t know it then. I never went back to that church, but based in part on that experience, I began attending an Episcopal church after I came to faith in our Emmanuel a year and a half later. The worship was inspiring for me, with full choir, priest, deacon and subdeacon on the altar, and communion every week. And they brought out the best of high liturgy on festival days. That was just the beginning of my worship experience. Since then, I’ve worshipped in high school auditoriums, school cafeterias, an old Elks lodge, outdoor chapels, an English cathedral built in the 11th century, a modern basilica, many living rooms, and, most recently, a barn. And, of course, I have had the great pleasure and honor of leading worship and celebrating communion at the Lord’s table in many of those places.
Over the course of all these worship experiences, I’ve encountered many different worship styles and various liturgical expressions – from high Anglo-Catholic worship with lots of chanting and incense, to simple morning prayer services with no communion, to services filled with heartfelt songs of praise, and, yes, to churches with really awful music. Those of you who know me well know that I prefer more formal, solemn worship, with lots of incense, great choral music and traditional hymns. But the most important thing about worship is not the place, the music, the vestments or lack of vestments; it’s the inclination of our hearts. Jesus made that clear to the woman at the well, when he told her that true worshippers worship the Father in spirit and truth, and that can happen in any context.
I learned this lesson especially well while attending an Anglican church service in a school auditorium one Sunday a few years ago. There was no bulletin, and if they were using an Anglican liturgy, I couldn’t discern it. It wasn’t my idea of what church should be like. I was getting frustrated and angry. As I sat there stewing, the Lord spoke to me – “Ross, relax and enter the worship, and don’t worry about your precious liturgy, and see what I will do.” Well, that made all the difference. I entered in, and I met God there in a powerful way.
As we Anglicans observe the various seasons of the church year, some aspects of our worship change. Most of us are more comfortable with the worship in some seasons than in others. The beginning of the new church year is not far away. What if we all decided to embrace the various styles of worship throughout those seasons with open hearts, letting go of our preferences, and asking God to speak to us in even those forms of worship that we don’t especially like? Might we meet God in a powerful way? Our liturgy helps us to orient our hearts to God, when we pray the collect for purity at the beginning of the service each week: “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and no secrets are hid; cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may truly love you and worthily magnify your holy name.” As we pray that prayer with sincerity, we can count on. God to lead us to worship in spirit and truth, and I am confident we will meet him as we do.
Those are some my thoughts on worship services. But St. Paul also talks about the service that is our spiritual worship in Romans 12:1. Maybe a topic for another day.